July 27, 2021

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Have You Hit a Wall?

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As the pandemic passes its one-year mark, have you had days when you’ve felt like you’re “in quicksand”? Do you find yourself asking: “What’s the date?”, “What time is it?” or “What did I do yesterday?” Have you started to feel less engaged at school, with your family and friends, or in your daily life?

These are some of the feelings that New York Times readers described in a recent questionnaire about work-related challenges in Month 13 of the coronavirus pandemic.

In “We Have All Hit a Wall,” Sarah Lyall writes about how different people are responding to what she describes as “late-stage pandemic burnout”:

Like many of us, the writer Susan Orlean is having a hard time concentrating these days. “Good morning to everyone,” she tweeted recently, “but especially to the sentence I just rewrote for the tenth time.”

“I feel like I’m in quicksand,” she explained by phone from California, where she has been under quasi-house arrest for the last year. “I’m just so exhausted all the time. I’m doing so much less than I normally do — I’m not traveling, I’m not entertaining, I’m just sitting in front of my computer — but I am accomplishing way less. It’s like a whole new math. I have more time and fewer obligations, yet I’m getting so much less done.”

Call it a late-pandemic crisis of productivity, of will, of enthusiasm, of purpose. Call it a bout of existential work-related ennui provoked partly by the realization that sitting in the same chair in the same room staring at the same computer for 12 straight months (and counting!) has left many of us feeling like burned-out husks, dimwitted approximations of our once-productive selves.

What time is it? What day is it? What did we do in October? Why are we standing in front of the refrigerator staring at an old clove of garlic? Just recently I myself spent half an hour struggling to retrieve a word from the faulty memory system that has replaced my prepandemic brain. (“Institution.” That was the word.) Sometimes, when I try to write a simple email, I feel I’m just pushing disjointed words around, like peas on a plate, hoping they will eventually coalesce into sentences. Am I excited about my daily work in this month of April, 2021? I would have to say that I am not.

“Malaise, burnout, depression and stress — all of those are up considerably,” said Todd Katz, executive vice president and head of group benefits at MetLife. The company’s most recent Employee Benefit Trends Study, conducted in December and January, found that workers across the board felt markedly worse than they did last April.

The study was based in part on interviews with 2,651 employees. In total, 34 percent of respondents reported feeling burned out, up from 27 percent last April. Twenty-two percent said they were depressed, up from 17 percent last April, and 37 percent said they felt stressed, up from 34 percent.

“People are saying they’re less productive, less engaged, that they don’t feel as successful,” Mr. Katz said.

No kidding. In this very bad year, of course, there are gradations of loss: loss of homes, of health, of income; the deaths of family members and other loved ones; the absence of security. In the most recent Household Pulse Survey, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37 percent of those surveyed reported feeling anxious or depressed (in 2019, the figure was 11 percent). In the scheme of things, people who have jobs are lucky. But that doesn’t mean work itself is easy, or fun.

Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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